For decades, one of the biggest debates in Washington has been about military spending – 1 in every 7 dollars we spend. Many defense leaders have questioned whether we’ve got our priorities straight, not to mention the countless stories of overspending, duplication, and weapons systems that we just don’t need.
David Walker, the former Comptroller General of the United States, says that asking whether we can cut spending is the wrong question. “Of course there are things we can streamline and save a lot of money,” he says. “But the real issue is that we need to understand the risks of the future, and put our resources there.”
“It’s not just about cutting. It’s about doing the work to make smarter choices.”
Listen to the full conversation here:
This conversation has been condensed and edited.
Matt Robison: How much do we spend on defense, and how has it evolved?
Dave Walker: The defense department is about 15% of the federal budget. That’s actually dramatically down from what it had been for many decades. But it’s still the largest part of discretionary spending, which is what Congress authorizes every year.
Matt Robison: Where does it go?
Dave Walker: It’s not all in places that people think about. For example, we spend a lot of money on research and development. We spend a lot on bases. There’s of course a significant amount for ongoing operations. And there’s a lot for compensation [pay for personnel].
Matt Robison: The Pentagon seems like it could be so big, so complex, and so intricate that it’s almost unmanageable.
Dave Walker: It is the largest single entity in the United States. By definition, that means it’s difficult to manage. Plus, the top leaders on the civilian side are political appointments, so most of them are in their job for maybe two to three years. But the biggest issue is that the Pentagon is a bloated bureaucracy. We spend way too on what is referred to as “tail” – overhead costs – which leaves less for “tooth,” which is war fighting.
So one of the things that we really have to do is to consolidate a lot of silos and significantly reduce what we spend on administration.
Matt Robison: So are we spending too much on defense overall?
Dave Walker: There’s absolutely an opportunity for saving a significant amount of money on overhead. We need to execute on that. But we also need to do a better job of assessing future credible risks. What capabilities do we need in order to address those risks? Unmanned vehicles, cyber warfare, space – these are all going to be big in the future. Plus to what extent should we have active duty versus reserve? Because reserve forces are a lot more economical than active duty. These are strategic questions.
Matt Robison: It sounds like it’s not quite the right question to ask “are we spending too much?” The right question is what problems do we need to solve in the future, and are there opportunities to do things better?
Dave Walker: I agree. What are the threats? What are the opportunities? And how do we re-engineer for the future?
Matt Robison: What about classic examples of overspending? From the fabled $600 hammer to the trillion dollars on the Joint Strike Fighter – is there a significant amount of bloat in weapons systems spending?
Dave Walker: There are definitely examples. We haven’t always made great choices. Take the F-22. It is the most advanced fighter in the world. And it is phenomenal. But it is incredibly expensive. So who are we going to use this against? We can’t sell it to anybody else, even allies.
By comparison, we have the F-35 which was $35 million each, while the F-22 was over $200 million. Plus, the F-35 was going to be purchased by many of our allies.
The Pentagon has starting adopting more best practices [to ask questions like this]. It’s still got a way to go. Believe it or not, there are parts of the of the Defense Department that don’t even keep their inventory on computers. We often don’t even know what material we even have.
Matt Robison: So if you had total power over the Pentagon and over all of our military spending, what reforms would you institute?
Dave Walker: First, I’d implement risk-based analysis. What are the credible threats, both current and future? I would dramatically reduce the size of overhead. That would mean consolidating and eliminating a lot of entities. I would move to accelerate adoption of best practices on acquisition and sourcing: meaning better data management and financial management.
There’s a lot of opportunity to spend smarter. But we’re talking about major transformational change. It requires leadership that has patience, persistence, perseverance, and is willing to endure pain before you prevail.
We share edited excerpts from the Great Ideas podcast every week that explain how policies work and present innovative solutions for problems. Please subscribe, and to hear more about how to spend smarter on defense, check out the full episode on Apple, Spotify, Google, Anchor, Breaker, Pocket, RadioPublic, or Stitcher
Matt Robison is a writer and political analyst who focuses on trends in demographics, psychology, policy, and economics that are shaping American politics. He spent a decade working on Capitol Hill as a Legislative Director and Chief of Staff to three Members of Congress, and also worked as a senior advisor, campaign manager, or consultant on several Congressional races, with a focus in New Hampshire. In 2012, he ran a come-from-behind race that national political analysts called the biggest surprise win of the election. He went on to work as Policy Director in the New Hampshire state senate, successfully helping to coordinate the legislative effort to pass Medicaid expansion. He has also done extensive private sector work on energy regulatory policy. Matt holds a Bachelor’s degree in economics from Swarthmore College and a Master’s degree in public policy from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He lives with his wife and three children in Amherst, Massachusetts.